A little too sleight of hand
Playwright and filmmaker David Mamet has a soft spot for crooks. From
"Glengarry Glen Ross" (about ethically bankrupt real estate salesmen)
to "The Spanish Prisoner" (about corporate scam artists), the writer
has explored confidence games with voyeuristic glee that often rubs
off on a viewer. His eighth film "Heist" in some ways explains and
demonstrates this fascination, because Mamet hoodwinks an audience
the way his characters rob their victims. This time around, the
director is reminiscent of an acquaintance who charms his host to no
end while pilfering him. Mamet retreads much of his earlier work, but
at least it's still entertaining.
Gene Hackman ("Heartbreakers") stars as Joe Moore, an aging thief
whose ability to outsmart security systems is prodigious. He and his
partners - Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Fran (Mamet's wife and default
female lead Rebecca Pidgeon) and Pinky (Mamet regular Ricky Jay) -
use guns and explosives as in more conventional thrillers. What makes
this crew special is that Joe and his cohorts use psychological tools
as often as they do gadgets. When a component of their plan goes
awry, Joe can think of a couple clever remarks that help him escape
with the goods.
His money management skills don't follow suit. When Joe wants to
retire after being captured on a security camera, he can't because
his fence, Bergman (the reliably skuzzy Danny DeVito) stiffs him and
won't pay Joe and his cohorts until they do another heist with
Bergman's nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). Jimmy is a rather
obnoxious lad who imagines himself to be a good deal slicker than he
actually is. He's also a hothead, making the more levelheaded and
methodical Joe resent his intrusion even more. As a result, the
thieves wind up spending as much time casing each other as they do
airports and jewelry stores.
Most of the fun to be had during "Heist" comes from watching Hackman
and his co-stars trying to outwit one another and often the audience
in the process. As "Heist" progresses, the dynamics behind the film
often shift dramatically. Mamet regularly fools a viewer into
thinking that one thing is happening and then reveals something
different entirely. Many of these twists, which recall "House of
Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner," are sufficiently slippery, but
toward the end a sort of "crying wolf" quality emerges. After a while
we begin to expect that Hackman or DeVito has a previously
undiscussed backup plan - the recurrence of these incidents dilutes
Mamet often pushes "Heist" toward contrivance in order to achieve its
desired jolt. An elaborate sequence of play acting in a bar later
turns out to be of use later in the film, but one wonders if any
successful thief would go to such trouble to fool someone who might
not be at work on the day of the heist.
For the most part, Mamet does get a decent workout from the cast.
Hackman is typically commanding and comes across with remarkable
sympathy for a career criminal. DeVito relishes a rare chance to play
menacing, and Lindo gets a chance to demonstrate acting chops he
hasn't been able to show in recent duds like "The One." As with some
of his previous flicks, Pidgeon comes off as a bit of a liability.
While she was likable in "State and Main," here she seems baffling.
True, she is supposed to be a mystery woman (although she's Joe's
much-younger wife, her toying with Jimmy's heart may actually be
genuine), but there isn't enough to her personality to keep her
activities interesting. Mamet's female characters are often sketchy
(think Pidgeon's love interest in "The Spanish Prisoner"), so it's
hard to know whether to blame the writer or the actress.
Because Mamet deliberately keeps us at arms length with these people
and their actual thoughts, "Heist" remains diverting but lacks some
of the power of his better work. For example, it helped to know that
Jack Lemmon in "Glengarry Glen Ross" had a sick daughter, so his
character's moral decay seemed all the more alarming. "Heist" still
manages to deliver the requisite snappy Mamet lines. Joe declares
about Fran, "She can talk her way out of a sunburn," and Lindo's
anecdote about a cop and a Bible is hysterical. Mamet can be an
engaging cinematic con artist, but it's a lot more enjoyable to watch
him making his money the old fashioned way: earning it.
"Heist" is rated R.